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NFC Preview: Evaluating the conference as we await the inevitable Eagles-49ers championship rematch

It’s mid-July, which means NFL training camps are right around the corner. Just about everyone is an optimist this time of year – and this season, that includes Jets and Lions fans! Hope springs eternal as we prepare for another season of the greatest sport known to man.

I’m not here to rain on anyone’s parade, but when we consider the NFC there are two separate conversations. The first one goes like this – which of its two Goliaths, Philadelphia and San Francisco, will represent the conference in the Super Bowl in February? The second conversation involves everyone else. Which teams have the most realistic shot of playing David to the Birds and Niners? Finally, what about everyone else? Who’s on the rise? Who’s in decline? And, in the case of the Arizona Cardinals, how many games into the season will it be before fans in Tempe are lashing themselves with cacti spines?

Here are some thoughts on those questions to ponder while you’re floating in the pool…

  1. Philly or San Francisco: Who ya got?

The Eagles and Niners are by no means traditional rivals. They play on opposite coasts, represent cities that are about as polar opposite as their geography and have met just five times in the past 12 years, with the Eagles holding a 3-2 advantage. That includes a 31-7 drubbing of San Francisco in last season’s NFC championship game. Fans may remember that the 49ers lost both starting quarterback Brock Purdy and backup Josh Johnson in that contest, rendering them impotent on offense.

That debacle prompted the NFL to change its rule this off-season that stipulated a team could maintain just two active game-day quarterbacks. Teams can now dress a third “emergency” quarterback in the event the first two are injured. This did little to appease San Francisco’s players, who publicly decried how the injuries robbed them of a chance to compete on a level playing field. Receiver Brandon Aiyuk said the Eagles “got extremely lucky” with the injuries, and Deebo Samuel asserted there was “no question” the 49ers are a better team. The Philly media responded by writing articles like, “Crybaby 49ers still whining about losing NFC championship game.” So, while there’s not much history here, it feels like a storm is brewing.

That storm is accentuated by the fact these two teams remain the cream of the NFC crop. Philadelphia lost some key defenders in free agency (T.J. Edwards, Javon Hargrave, C.J. Gardner Johnson) but kept their cornerbacks together by re-signing James Bradbury and Darius Slay and adding Greedy Williams. They also brought back veteran leaders Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham and signed versatile safety Terrell Edmunds. On offense, they resigned Jason Kelce, the team’s heart and soul, and swapped out running back Miles Sanders for free agent Rashaad Penny, which is likely a lateral move but mitigates a loss. Otherwise, they retain the most dynamic play-making unit in the league. Philly led the NFL with 151 explosive plays last year and was 2nd in points-per-game to the Chiefs. Losing both their offensive and defensive coordinators may be costly, but head coach Nick Sirianni has a good thing going.

The 49ers, meanwhile, begin the season with questions at quarterback as both Purdy and Trey Lance recover from off-season surgeries. They lost some talent in free agency as well, including Mike McGlinchey, Emmanuel Moseley and Jimmie Ward. But bringing in Hargrave from the Eagles will bolster an already-impressive defensive line, and their embarrassment of riches at the skill positions should make the offense formidable no matter which quarterback is taking snaps. The early slate of games is not daunting, either, with only one of their first four opponents having made the playoffs last year. That should help as the quarterback situation solidifies. Factor in how Kyle Shanahan seems to have built a team perfectly suited to his style, and the Niners should pick up where they left off in 2022.

Long story short, Philadelphia and San Francisco seem destined for a heated championship rematch. First, though, they’ll meet December 3rd in Philly, which should be one of the can’t-miss games of the regular season.

2. Who else has a shot?

The next tier in the NFC is cluttered with flawed but potential contenders who could win the conference if things fall their way.

Dallas seems like the best of this group, although forgive me if I’m skeptical. On paper, the Cowboys are very good. Their Top 5 offense from last season could be even better with the addition of Brandin Cooks, and if Stephon Gilmore has anything left in the tank, the defense could be lights out. But the Cowboys have won just four playoff games this century, and none beyond the Wild Card round. Pundits are always quick to anoint the Cowboys as contenders, but their recent track record suggests otherwise.

Minnesota went 13-4 last year and would seem to be in this conversation. But the defense was awful and hasn’t added much talent, and it remains to be seen how the offense will perform without Dalvin Cook, who was released last month. Their big off-season acquisition was defensive coordinator Brian Flores, who will undoubtedly make that unit better. But it’s hard to envision the Vikings slowing down the Niners, Eagles and Cowboys in order to make a serious playoff run.

Detroit is the new darling of the NFC, and the buzz around the Lions is justified. They have a Top 10 offense, a young and improving defense and a head coach (Dan Campbell) who seems to have created a positive culture in Detroit for the first time in decades. The Lions haven’t won a playoff game since 1991, though, and haven’t qualified for the playoffs since 2016. That streak should end this year. But it’s hard to see Detroit as a legitimate contender just yet.

The last team who deserves to be in this conversation is Seattle. The Seahawks are talented on offense, with an excellent ground game and one of the league’s best receiving corps. The defense is solid if not spectacular, and Pete Carroll always seems to have Seattle prepared. If Geno Smith can show he wasn’t a one-year wonder, they will be a tough out for whomever draws them in the playoffs.

3. What about the rest?

Working from east to west…

The Giants made a surprising playoff appearance last season but may be hard-pressed to do it again. Saquon Barkley is unhappy, and the receiving corps is shaky. There may not be enough support for Daniel Jones, and the boos will be pronounced if Jones doesn’t live up to the beefy contract extension (4 years, $160 million) New York granted him.

The Commanders were a respectable 8-8-1 last year and return a formidable defense. Their hopes hinge on how quickly whomever wins the quarterback battle between Sam Howell and Jacoby Brissett can master new head coach Eric Bienemy’s system. If that happens, Washington may be good enough to sneak into the playoffs as a Wild Card team.

Green Bay begins the Jordan Love era exactly as you’d like for a young quarterback. He has a solid offensive line and a strong running game. Green Bay has a relatively soft schedule, too. If they can find a way to stop the run (26th in the league last season), they may also be a Wild card contender.

The Bears made a ton of moves this off-season in an effort to improve on last year’s 3-14 campaign. They rebuilt their offensive line and their linebacking corps and should indeed be better. Chicago isn’t a playoff team in 2023, but the arrow is pointing up.

We’ll group the entire NFC South together, since all four teams finished within a game of each other last season and no one has since run away from the pack. Each team has a case to make as a potential division champion. Well, except maybe Tampa Bay, who looks to be in a full rebuild. Derek Carr is the best quarterback in the division, which gives New Orleans an edge, and Carolina might be the best overall team. But I like how Atlanta is building a Tennessee-style offense for head coach and former Titans coordinator Arthur Smith. There will be a lot of close games in this division, and the Falcons are constructed to win them. Atlanta is my surprise pick to win the South.

The Rams won the Super Bowl two seasons ago but already feel like an after-thought in the West. They appear to be in a rebuild, shedding salary and perhaps setting themselves up to draft Matthew Stafford’s successor at quarterback. It could be a long season for Sean McVay, who should have enough job security to endure it and start over in 2024.

Which brings us to Arizona. With apologies to my sister, a Tempe resident and rabid Cardinals fan, it ain’t gonna be pretty this season. Arizona has one of the worst defenses in the league and will be quarterbacked by the Pupu platter of Colt McCoy, Jeff Driskel and David Blough while Kyler Murray rehabs from the ACL tear he suffered in December. New head coach Jonathan Gannon can take solace in the fact the Cardinals have lots of cap space and will have a host of high draft picks next year. In the meantime, he’d be wise to hide out in the Superstitions, where only the most avid desert hikers may come looking for him.

Category: NFL

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